How to protect against equine influenza

The threat of equine influenza took the horse racing world by storm this year as an above-average number of infections cancelled races in the United Kingdom. It was the first time in 15 years that horse races were canceled for flu concerns.

The ongoing U.K. outbreak has seen 69 cases, mostly in England, but one as far north as Aberdeenshire in Scotland. The highly infectious virus has also been seen recently in the U.S. states of California, Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, Washington and Tennessee. The Horse reports that equine influenza cases have been increasing in both the U.S. and Europe as of late.

Biosecurity is best

The virus that causes equine influenza is about as contagious as can be, meaning horse caretakers have to be vigilant. It can survive for two days on a surface, so horse equipment and stables should be disinfected frequently and methodically.

Keeping horses in close quarters is a major factor in spreading the disease, hence this year’s race suspensions. Equine influenza causes horses to cough, shedding the virus everywhere they go. That’s why experts recommend that infected animals be kept at least 50 yards away from other horses.

“All flu viruses in mammals require chains of transmission that have to be kept going and if we can break those chains of transmission, then we can stop those viruses and we stop the evolution of them,” Animal Health Trust’s Richard Newton explained to The Naked Scientists.

It can be hard to break that chain when horses are so often on the move.

“The horse, after humans, is the most widely travelled animal,” Newton said. “There are numerous examples where we have spread this infection across the world because we’ve travelled animals that are infected, and then become infectious to other animals.”

Sometimes animals aren’t even required, as humans can carry viruses on their shoes, clothing or other items. Anyone working with sick horses should use personal protective equipment, like disposable gloves, overalls and boots, as well as hand sanitizer.

Horses can be vaccinated for equine influenza, but like with humans, a flu vaccine can’t offer 100% protection, as the virus mutates fast. There are often strains that slip through.

Signs of disease

Symptoms of equine influenza include coughing, fever, nasal discharge, rapid breathing and loss of appetite. Coughing is usually the first sign of an infection. It can take one to three days for symptoms to appear, and horses usually recover with treatment and rest. Antibiotics must be used if bacterial pneumonia develops.

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